Reviewing Happy-Go-Lucky, Ben Lyons said "Rent It," because it doesn't have any conclusion and because the British humor went over his head. I think that doesn't give the film sufficient credit--it takes a character who seems very simple and shows how she has to deal with some complex situations. Her ability to do this is interesting, revealing, and most importantly very entertaining. As far as the British humor, compared to something like The Office (UK), which does throw around a lot of British pop culture references, I thought the humor in Happy-Go-Lucky was totally accessible. Leave it to Lyons to find a (bad) excuse not to give a movie a better recommendation.
The first few minutes of Happy-Go-Lucky had me interested but skeptical. Yes, Sally Hawkins is exuberantly happy, not letting anybody get her down and even laughing off the theft of her bicycle. This is fine, I thought, but I may not be all that impressed with another feel-good story about how this strange woman is just so happy all the time. Maybe it is just a little too cute. But the film does much more than this. We ultimately see Poppy in a number of unexpected circumstances that really test her good cheer. We laugh at her goofball antics, but come to admire her resolve and toughness.
Some of the best laughs come from her interaction with an uptight driving instructor, who has a dismissive attitude toward his students and is overly protective of his car. He even has an obscure set of descriptions for every circumstance a driver might find themselves in--changing lanes, driving in a roundabout, turning on a busy street--which are far more confusing than simply saying, "check your mirrors" or "look both ways." Suffice it to say, I will never look at my rear view mirror--or the Washington Monument, for that matter--the same way again. But he assures Poppy that he is the teacher and this is the only way she is going to remember and if it doesn't work, it is all her fault. She plays along and laughs it off, which he doesn't exactly appreciate.
It also turns out that Poppy is an elementary school teacher herself--to the great chagrin of her driving instructor, who cannot imagine her teaching anybody anything--and faces some unexpected challenges with her students. Better yet, it seems that her entire clique of pub-crawling friends are teachers who need a stiff one after rough day at the office.
Initially, Poppy comes off as just a goofy ditz. But what is so gratifying is the way that she confronts and deals with the little difficulties in life--as well as a few that are quite difficult and uncomfortable--without becoming cynical or bitter. We keep thinking that at some point she will meet her match--maybe we won't see it in the movie, but she just doesn't get how screwed up the world really is.
But this is not some "happy-go-lucky" goofball without any stress in her life. Quite to the contrary, she is a thirty-year-old with a full time job and a difficult sister, who has decided that she is not going to let life's challenges bring her down. She's not the one who doesn't get it--on the contrary, it's all the people who have decided to make their lives difficult by letting the world get to them that don't get it. Poppy has figured out how to laugh off all of life's pains and annoyances while the rest of us are too busy being frustrated and holding a grudge. It turns out that goes for the driving instructor more than anybody, especially when he learns that his attitude will only get him so far.
I don't think that Poppy actually grows throughout the film. That is, this is not a coming-of-age story with a convenient moral that the hero learns--although the driving instructor certainly learns a few things from Poppy. What happens is that we have learned something--that this simple, silly character is actually a strong, intelligent, and mature woman who knows much better at how to deal with life's difficulties than we might have expected.